What's it like to spend a week with 52 female impersonators who have devoted the last several months of their lives to doing everything possible to win the title of Miss Gay America (MGA), 2014? Let's just say that from October 8-14 the Millennium Hotel in St. Louis was like being on a big gay cruise ship. I was there with Suzy Wong to photograph the event.
The Miss Gay America Pageant was started in 1972 by Jerry Peek, the owner of the Watch Your Hat and Coat Saloon, the first gay dance club in Nashville. This pageant has a longer history than any female impersonation pageant in the country.
If you are a connoisseur of this art you realize that it takes many forms. While some queens select a well-known woman and impersonate her very closely — think Dolly Parton, Cher, Liza Minelli, or Judy Garland — others create a woman in their own imagination and develop her as a character. Suzy Wong is an example of this kind of fantasy alter-ego.
The MGA pageant tends toward traditional representations of what it is to be female, while there are many contemporary queens who perform in a less gender-defined, more free-form milieu. There was an interesting blend of the two at this pageant. Suzy's makeup artist was Raja Gemini, a winner of RuPaul's Drag Race, and as far from a "pageant queen" as one can be. On the other hand, one of the former MGA winners, CoCo Montrese, was also a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, truly blending the traditional with the avant garde.
A frequent question about female impersonators is, "Do you think they really want to be women?" A few, maybe. Mostly I think they are like male birds. They just want to be flashy peacocks, and explore another way to be perceived.
There were competitors in St. Louis from all over the country. The way this pageant system is organized makes it possible to compete for years, and many competitors just keep coming back again and again, hoping each time to take home the crown. The week of the pageant becomes the focal point of their year.
The competition covers five categories: Male Interview, Solo Talent, Long Talent (which can include elaborate props and backup dancers), Evening Gown, and Question and Answer. In this sense it resembles the "real girl" Miss America Pageant.
The standards are quite high, and each category is judged on a point system. Since there were 52 competitors, in order for each of them to have the time to do all the events, the evenings started at 8 PM and were usually over around 2:30 AM. So, on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights all the preliminary competitions took place. During the days, there were rehearsals, sound checks, and meetings. Of course, with 52 people performing, there were bound to be some duplications of icons and iconic songs. Tina Turner and Liza Minelli showed up on stage more than once. And I confess that "Good Morning Baltimore" got so stuck in my head that I have now downloaded it as my ringtone.
All the mistresses of ceremony were former title holders, who also took turns performing at intervals during the evenings. The reigning Miss Gay America, Sally Sparkles, did a great job as the centerpiece of the week. A high point of the pageant was an intricate number that she choreographed to introduce the competitors on Sunday night.
On Saturday night, the competitors got a night off, to be entertained by performances by the former winners. But, of course, the pressure was still on, and building. Sunday evening was the big event, and the program started with the presentation of all the candidates onstage, for the announcement of the Top Ten. I must confess that I was totally gripped by the drama. Suzy's goal for this week had been to make the Top Ten. I didn't see how her performances could have been better, but I also knew I was prejudiced. So many of the contestants had done a great job. The amount of effort, discipline, and sheer talent was amazing.
I was holding my breath as the names were called. When I heard Suzy's name I actually cried, I was so relieved and happy. Once again, these ten performed their talent, and did the Questions and Answers in evening gown. The pageant wrapped up with a winner being crowned — Jessica Jade, Miss East Coast, became Miss Gay America, 2014. I went on stage to do all the official pageant photos, and then at 2:30 AM shot the first official portrait of Queen Jessica. I know that there are people like me, who simply love "drag" and get it, and there are people who don't get it at all. The fact is, no matter how you feel about it, you couldn't watch the spectacle of this pageant without respecting the performers.
I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that Suzy's parents, Patti and Win Myint, came along on the trip. The Myints are the most wonderful parents a queen could have. They were like two kids on a honeymoon, attending all the shows, having quiet little dinners away from the crowd, smiling, cheering for Suzy, and having fun. Suzy's dad even had a favorite: a buxom blonde serving Vogue Madonna.
One of the things that touched my heart was how many of the contestants' parents were in the audience. Just like the Myints, they were proud of their sons, and there to be supportive.
I have always thought that it takes an extremely strong man to put on a dress. The thing I love most about these guys is that not only do they keep alive a great art form, they also completely disregard all the rules about "appropriate gender behavior" that society has tried to use to control us, whether we are gay or straight. God save the queens. They are the bravest of all.
Margaret Ellis was introduced to female impersonation when she attended the first MGA pageant in 1972, and has been a fan ever since. She is a friend to the LGBT community, and an activist for equality. She shares her thoughts on her blog, www.margaretellisaroundthehouse.com.
photo credits: Magaret Ellis Photography